An American man who was imprisoned in Egypt for the past six years on what he claimed were false charges has died following a long hunger strike.
Dual Egyptian-American citizen Moustafa Kassem, a 54-year-old taxi cab driver from New York, passed away due to a heart failure from his hunger strike on Monday, the State Department announced.
He was arrested in Cairo on August 14, 2013 during a bloody crackdown following the Arab Spring military takeover led by current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, accused of participating in an anti-government protest.
However, Kassem claims he was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time and wasn't affiliated with the protests.
He passed away on Monday, four days after he refused to consume any liquids at his high-security Tora prison and was transported to a hospital. He suffered from diabetes and a heart complication that likely went untreated at the prison.
Kassem is survived by his two children and wife.
Kassem's case was one of the top focuses of the Trump administration, championed by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In August 2013 Kassem's family said he stepped out to exchange money and shop when security officials detained him, accusing him of participating in protests against the military takeover, according to one of Kassem's lawyers Praveen Madhiraju.
However, Kassem insisted that he was not linked to any opposition political groups and claimed he was wrongfully detained. He said Egyptian soldiers grabbed his American passport and threw it on the ground.
He was arrested the night before he was set to return to the US.
'Moustafa was as apolitical as it gets. He was just a bystander who got picked up - wrong place, wrong time. It's ridiculous that he has died,' Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American human rights campaigners who spent four months behind bars with Kassem and was released in 2015, said to the New York Times.
In September 2018, he was sentenced to 15 years in jail in a mass trial with more than 700 co-defendants.
In the prison Kassem was trapped thousands of miles away from his family and his diabetes and heart ailment were largely untreated.
Kassem is believed to have started this hunger strike in September 2018 following his conviction, refusing to consume solid foods. He had embarked on hunger strikes before this as well.
On Friday he refused to take liquids and was shortly after transported to a hospital in central Cairo. He passed away Monday in the late afternoon, Soltan said.
'A diabetic with a heart condition, prison officials limited access to necessary medications and medical care for the entirety of his (Kassem’s) detention. He remained in pretrial detention for over five years,' Pretrial Rights International's statement said.
'The Egyptian foreign ministry informed the family around three hours ago that Kassem has died. The authorities did not provide any reasons for his death, which is always the case in such incidents,' a source close to the family said to ABC News Monday.
In February 2019 Kassem's sister said he was dying because of his hunger strike.
Kassem pleaded with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to help free him in letters.
'Dear President Trump: As an American beginning the hunger strike that could leave my two young children without a father and make my wife a widow, I pray that you secure my freedom,' he wrote in one letter.
'Like you, I’m from New York,' another letter addressed to Trump said. 'I am going on hunger strike knowing full well that I may not survive it. I am putting my life in your hands.'
In September 2018 during a trip to Cairo, Pence brought up Kassem's case with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power with the 2013 military coup d'état. He also brought up the case of Ahmed Etiwy, another American imprisoned in Egypt.
El-Sisi promised to give 'very serious attention' to the case, Pence relayed to reporters.
'I told him we'd like to see those American citizens restored to their families and restored to our country,' Pence said.
Just last month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised Kassem's case up in a meeting with Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry.
A senior State Department official said it's 'still premature to talk about' US punishment or response against Egypt for Kassem's death.
'We are really concerned about this, and we're going to talk about it,' the source said.
According to the State Department there are still 'several' other US citizens detained in Egypt though an official number as not been released.
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said there are at least six.
'Pompeo must remind Egypt that military aid is legally tied to releasing prisoners, including at least 6 US citizens,' he tweeted Monday.
'I am deeply saddened to learn today the death of U.S. citizen Moustafa Kassem who’d been imprisoned in Egypt,' assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs with the State Department David Schenker said during a Mondays news briefing. 'His death in custody was needless, tragic and avoidable.'
Kassem is the first of these American prisoners to die in Egyptian custody.
Egypt is the second-biggest recipient of US military aid after Israel, raking in a $1.3billion a year.
Trump has been vocal of his support of el-Sisi, even calling him 'my favorite dictator', even though his government has led the harshest crackdown on freedom of speech and political opposition in decades.
Egypt is notorious for its brutal treatment of its political prisoners, where inmates are often given the medical care they need and there are accusations of torture.
Last year in June ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi died after he collapsed during his court hearing. His family accused authorities of denying him proper medical access. They said he fainted twice and experienced a diabetic coma in 2017.
'The death of former President Morsi strikes some frightening parallels with Mustafa's case. Mustafa is also being housed at Scorpion prison within Tora Prison Complex. He also has a heart condition and diabetes and is subject to similarly neglectful medical treatment,' Madhiraju said at the time of Morsi's death.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.